DiS meets Marnie Stern
DiS talks to guitar goddess * Marnie Stern* about poetry, paganism and Einstein...
DIS: There are some heavy questions coming up, so perhaps it's best just to start by asking: What are you listening to right now?
MS: "I've been listening to a lot less noise, and a lot more... rock. Television, and The Who, and AC/DC and... just much more straightforward bands. It's the drive of those bands... you know, I'd take a shower, and listen to those bands, and I just really got into a phase where I wanted to write fun songs.
DIS: I wanted to ask you about the relevance of processual poetry and events-based poetry to the lyrics.
MS: Sure, well, I tend to read a lot and write down phrases I like, and then chop them up. People think they're abstract phrases, but they mean a lot to me.
DIS: Which is strange because a lot of lines came through as very emotional, even where the vocals could be obscure. Seeing the lyrics [available on Marnie's Myspace page] it becomes apparent that all of them cohere.
MS: This tends to get overlooked a lot in the press, and some people hate them, but... I mean, mostly I think that life is really tough, and a real pain in the ass, and it's when I'm working [that] I feel really fulfilled and excited about what life can be, and I try to reflect it in there. What's great about positive thinking – people think it's hippie-dippie, but I'm the farthest thing from a hippie in the world. There's a cynicism that pervades... everywhere, and I'm cynical [too], but... forcing yourself to be positive is much harder. It's more difficult. I think about it everyday – I'd much prefer to say Fuck It... but I say Keep Going... to a better place.
*DIS: Well, I think those positive messages are clear on loads of the songs. Particularly: _"I'm not looking / to find a pot of gold / the picture in my head /is my reward."_ *
MS: Right. Also, in that moment [it expressed the fact that], for me: life goes by very slowly, but when I'm making music, that's the only time I find fulfilment, and then you look at your clock and three hours have gone by; it's in that state where, you know, creativity [blooms?] and you can get to that place.
DIS: Is that part of the pressure to make fast music – because you find that most contemporary culture is relatively slow in terms of the arrival of ideas?
MS: Yes, absolutely, and so many people who make music, it's just regurgitation... I don't find any of themselves in the music, and I would assume you're not in the moment if you're copying a bunch of other stuff. You can tell when it's – I don't want to say "forced" – but it just doesn't ring authentic for me, and that's why it's so great working with Zach [from Hella] because he's just such an authentic player, and his whole being comes out when he plays… so that's been a real inspiration for me. [...]
DIS: Thinking about the cynicism that comes across other in people's records – some of the reference points [in your style] seem to be in a kind of music I never listen to – a very insular, aggressive, testosteronal, extreme metal, which sometimes claims to be cerebral but almost as soon as it does so, apologizes for doing so by posturing as Paganism where it shades into Satanism. On the other hand, you take aspects of that music, but focus on exploring Gnosticism and Platonism.
MS: It was just by accident. That style of music blew me away, but not necessarily other parts of it. Things that I end up hearing are... the cynicism. A lot of that comes from the scene, and it's more about socializing, and for me that's very frustrating. Those bands tend to get a lot of buzz, and hype, and people are saying how great they are when the music – to me – is so transparent, and it's just about being what's "in" and what's "hip" […]
[On the other hand, the music scene also] rewards some sort of faux-sincerity, as well. It drives me bananas! I don't think many bands are sincere, and when they are [pretending], it's precious… it's a cute, "precious" thing. There's something that doesn't ring true to me, for 90% of the stuff out there. I don't have much confidence [about] most things in my life, but in terms of taste, I am very opinionated.
DIS: Who would you want to say something positive about?
MS: I haven't had many modern influences. When I was writing the first record, there was Lightning Bolt, Deerhoof, Hella, Erase Errata. Right now, I really like Ponytail
DIS Hence the references back to the 70s in [new single] "Transformer"? [Borrowing the title from Lou Reed, but also featuring a video in which Marnie has Aladdin Sane facepaint, hinting that she's somehow gynandrous for infiltrating a "male" genre, namely: virtuoso electric guitar music]. That seemed to me the strongest indication of your attitude to questions of gender in relation to music. Subjectively, "gender" seems to be "everywhere and nowhere" across the two records, whereas on Kim Gordon's songs, in Sonic Youth, it's just "everywhere", and not much gets said as a result. So, that indifference, and the occasional oblique reference, seemed more powerful – it shows a playfulness [about gender identity in relation to music], and that there's been a historical development inasmuch you don't feel the need to dwell on the issues explicitly.
MS: Yes! That's what I'm trying to convey – you put it better than I could! But, yes, it came from the fact that when I did the record, everyone said "What's it like being as girl making this music?" and so I said "Well, when I was a guy..." [laughs] I mean… what a stupid question! After I heard the question a hundred times, I just thought: well, if I'm an influence to anyone: that's great, that's exciting. But it's also frustrating because, I think I'm pretty good at the guitar, but I'm not a virtuoso... I focus much more on the songwriting, and so I get stuck when people pull me apart.
DIS: That's such an odd dichotomy isn't it? [Song-writing versus virtuoso guitar playing] When I listened to [some shred guitarists] after a piece about you, I thought "well, there may be more notes, but if it doesn't make me feel anything…"
MS: Exactly. And yet no-one really cares [about the songs]
DIS: For me, the interplay between your simpler rhythm guitar parts [which are pretty standard rock], and the lead [which is, yes, marginally simpler than Joe Satriani, Slash, or whoever] is what makes it much more emotive, and perhaps complex than any of those others.
MS: So much of that music is just surface, and the journalists tend to look at the surface, so they focus on "female playing the guitar"
DIS: There's an advantage to that in a way: since you've got negative expectations, you might as well do what you want. You're almost licensed to get away from the [genre conventions].
MS: Yes. I feel like it's a kind of no-win situation, in terms of the way people are going to pocket you into little genres. For the most part, in terms of genre, all I'm trying to do is move people, with the most interesting types of patterns, and combinations I can find, and do the best with that.
DIS: Do you collect sounds that suggest something phanopoeic? Like on the last track of In Advance [i.e. 'Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling', on which Marnie sounds out 'the diamond slippers on your feet' and 'the self-eaters' and 'the late-comers, who back-shuffle forwards / their sound is weeeeird']
MS: I sift those. I never work by changing tones. I just try and change the guitar sounds. It becomes difficult when I'm judging myself… when I say "that doesn't sound like that", until I just let myself go with it… that's when the best stuff happens. When I do the silliest stiff, that's the most embarrassing to me...
DIS: You said your friend [Bella Foster, responsible for the artwork] had persuaded you to be sillier…
MS: Oh yeah, without her... I tend to throw away stuff; you know, 'Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling' – I almost threw that away [This is the climax of the album, and the track that – if you like nothing else – will blow you away, conceptually and musically. Even when I'm not quite in the mood for the record, it's the one that keeps me listening to the end] In fact, that was gone. It was too embarrassing for me. I do the same for her, for her art and – I talk about her a lot, but she's an influence – she really helps me a lot. She's the best one in the world.
DIS: Looking at the artwork of In Advance, do you share an interest in Greco-Roman mythology, or was that something you directed her to include?
MS: We both do. We went through this weird phase of creativity where we read all the same books together, like 100 books, and then we came across a lot of Joseph Campbell, and mythology, and then we found this book about cave art. We were thinking about what would be the impulse for making art in a cave in the first place. If you depended on animals for sustenance, and… what, what, what. And so [Bella] started making cave paintings, where she was putting all these items from her life [...] in a cave.
DIS: Isn't that an Alice in Wonderland line on the sleeve? To me, that suggests that "going down the rabbithole" is a less frightening, more playful analogy to going into Hades qua the unconscious…?
MS: It's so wonderful that you notice all these things! Nobody else does, at all! [...] The other questions are all: [dumb male voice] "So, like, when did you start playing the guitar?" But, Zach and me talked about these questions a lot, with Bella – those were our conversations all the time, like that... it's, well, it's great that someone gets it.
DIS: Thinking about synaesthesia, and assuming you'd looked into Pythagorean ideas about the relation between numbers and music, I wondered if anyone had combined those ideas?
MS: I don't think so. To me, numbers are clean and interesting, and especially for me – I like the math. I like the mathy style of music… On the new record though, the song 'Clone Cycle' is the number-song: but I'm trying to assign personal details to the numbers [not colours]. "One is hard, but One is bold / Two is boring..." because two is like couples! [laughs] But I don't run with those ideas very long; they just come in bursts. [...] My personality has a lot of attention deficit in it! And an insecurity, where I think: People aren't going to want to listen to a song of mine for more than 3 minutes so let's make it really short... but I've been trying to play with different ideas. I always say it's important to keep growing, and not to get stuck in the rut of styles, so that's what I've been doing lately.
DIS: Exploring longer songs? Like, multi-part 'Diamond Sea'-type songs, or more spacious, drone-based tracks?
MS: Yah – all of that – but now I have to do the tour, so we'll see what happens in 6 months, when I settle down with some good books.
DIS: What's been recent?
MS: It's been an Einstein biography, and a book on the CIA [laughs]. More entertaining stuff! But no – I've been enjoying the Einstein book. As an adult, he became more mystical, and he was so amazed by the way all the numbers worked perfectly, that he came to believe in something bigger, and that drove all of his work; that's why he was able to come up with stuff that was really strange for the time: because he was looking at a bigger picture. [A friend of mine] influenced me a lot, because he [stops me thinking] I've figured it all out, which keeps me thinking, and keeps me changing, so I don't think I know it all. I went through a phase of just… regurgitating stuff, but now I can see the bigger picture.